You’ve probably heard phrases like he slipped a disc, or her vertebrae fused. Both of these are issues of the spine and come in on the more painful end of the spectrum. The first refers to a misplacement of the cartilage between vertebrae while the second is owing to its degeneration. So, why is there cartilage between vertebrae and what happens when this cartilage becomes problematic? This article will tell you more.
Cartilage In a Nutshell
There is cartilage between vertebrae to cushion the vertebral bones (like shock absorbers) while you move your body. It protects the vertebrae from damage and the spine to remain flexible.
Between each vertebra lies oval-shaped tissue known as the intervertebral discs. These discs are only present in the non-fused regions of the spine (cervical, thoracic and lumbar) and are actually not entirely made of cartilage.
Each intervertebral disc has a:
- Tough outer shell of cartilage, which is known as the annulus fibrosus, and
- Soft, squishy centre known as the nucleus pulposus.
The outer layer of tough cartilage supports the stacked vertebrae while the central nucleus provides cushioning.
Functions of the Intervertebral Discs
There are three main functions of the intervertebral discs:
These cartilage discs provide cushioning for the spine’s vertebrae. This greatly reduces the stress of impacts and ensures that the individual vertebrae do not rub against each other during bodily movements.
Intervertebral discs assist with protecting the important nerves that run along the spinal column and between the vertebrae.
Cartilage ensures a degree of spinal flexibility and allows us certain ranges of motion like bending forwards at the waist without damaging our spine.
Common Intervertebral Disc Injuries
They might be coated in a thick layer of tough cartilage but the discs between vertebrae are far from indestructible! Below are the three most common causes of intervertebral disc:
Also known as a ‘slipped disc’, a herniated disc occurs when an intervertebral disc bulges or ‘pops’ out of place owing to excessive strain (usually from lifting something heavy incorrectly). The intervertebral disc actually ruptures apart, and the soft gelatinous centre leaks into the surrounding nerves to cause irritation and eventual inflammation. Once inflammation occurs, pressure is placed on the nerves to result in severe back pain.
Degenerative Disc Disease
As you get older, the cartilage discs between your vertebrae lose flexibility and their ability to absorb stress placed on the spine. The intervertebral discs become thinner and more rigid so restricting movement and causing pain. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) can occur in people as young as 20 years old and commonly occurs in the cervical and lumbar regions of the spinal column.
To learn more about the make-up of the vertebrae as well as their functioning in the body, sign up for Trifocus Fitness Academy’s Dissection of Vertebrae Course. It is accredited by the Register of Exercise Professionals South Africa (REPSSA) which has awarded this course 3 CPD points. This makes your CPD points internationally transferrable.
Course modules include:
- Learning how to differentiate between the different muscles of the spinal column
- What are ‘muscle fascia’
- Discovering how to work with curvatures of the spine
- What are the different parts of the vertebrae?
- Distinguish between the regional characteristics of the vertebrae